Saturday, November 16, 2019

Hansel and Gretel’s purposeful storytelling and magical transition releases its charm at San Francisco Opera

In a family-friendly mix of good and evil and a delightful touch of hocus pocus, Engelbert Humperdinck’s most familiar opera, Hansel and Gretel, opened in a new production for San Francisco Opera on Friday night. Co-produced with London’s Royal Opera and both directed and designed by Antony McDjonald, the work pours out a good measure of more relaxed opera entertainment as the holiday season approaches.

Sasha Cooke as Hansel and Heidi Stober as Gretel 
That’s not to say that Humperdinck approached this Grimm brothers’ fairytale lightly. There’s so much glorious space to bask in with Humperdinck’s tapestry of meandering and effervescent melodies, musical landscapes and darker interjections to match the intensity of the heavyweight master of Bayreuth, Richard Wagner. And German librettist Adelheid Wette’s translated and sung English text for this two-hour, three-act 1893 opera is a rhyming cracker. 

McDonald has taken the more traditional and folkloric conceptual path and added characters of requisite largesse and vitality to its picture. A cuckoo clock that winds time from good times to poor above a proscenium-filled framed alpine setting sets the story in motion. It’s a cosy start that leads into the reality of Hansel and Gretel’s shirked at chore-ridden day. That the magic is kept at bay until Act 2’s evocative forest scene, one in which Hansel and Gretel’s dream becomes a wonderfully woven story of fairytale characters, is understandable. If not for Lucy Burge’s amusingly choreographed routines in Act 1 the kids of the audience might have demanded more. 

Michaela Martens as Mother and Alfred Walker as Father 
But then madness is mixed with magic in Act 3 when the witch’s house in the forest appears in a reference to Hitchcock’s  creepy Psycho mansion - a cake, in fact, with a giant knife sliced through the top. By this time, you can see how McDonald has purposefully transitioned the storytelling. After a fabulously sticky chocolatey end for the witch, it comes to land gently on the released children, angelically sung, in a thankfully not too bombastic god-guiding end of prayer’s value.

On opening night, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was a clear standout, rich and resonant of voice as the more pragmatic Hansel and full of adorable cheekiness to go with it. Soprano Heidi Stober added radiance as the sensible and dreamy Gretel, producing the magnificent fullness of a soaring top but bogged down at times by fuzzy diction and phrasing that dissipated in the lower parts of the voice. Importantly, the operatic pair appear in their element as nimble young siblings who are more or less struggling with but learning to balance responsibility with easy-come fun and adventure.

Dream pantomime tableau from Hansel and Gretel
As the parents trying to balance their own issues, dark mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens and earthy baritone Alfred Walker were a powerful blend of contrast and connection with Martens giving tenor Robert Brubaker’s raggedly sung psychotic witch a run for his money in conjuring up menace. Ashley Dixon was invitingly warm as the Sandman and Natalie Image sprinkled her charms as the Dew Fairy.

Overall, however, some attention seemed needed from the cast in projecting more consistently and smoothly. And, despite the gorgeously pronounced patches of expansive music under the baton of Christopher Franklin, the music occasionally ran its own show. With a three-week performance run to come, there’s wriggle room for tweaking such details. Hansel and Gretel is one of the great operatic joys of opera and once seen and heard, as little nippers sing out for, it’s hard not to imagine its story told in any other way.

Hansel and Gretel 
San Francisco Opera 
War Memorial Opera House
Until 7th December 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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